About a month after my husband and I started dating, he gave me, half-jokingly, a copy of The Geek Handbook: User Guide and Documentation for the Geek in Your Life, by Mikki Halpin. I read the whole thing that night, and the next day, I assured him I was surprisingly well-suited for geek care. Many of my closest friends are geeks from all over the spectrum (coding, gaming, fanning, etc), and I had plenty of experience with what those relationships can require.
A few months later, I was able to return the favor when his sister recommended The Introvert Advantage. If his Handbook was meant to prepare me for what loving a software engineer and life long tinkerer would entail, this book was what he needed to fully understand an introvert who came from a family of introverts! Of course, he’s one too, so you’d think neither of us would require such a guide for proper tending . You’d be wrong.
After I read it for the first time, he and I talked a lot about the basic premise of the book (that introverts become re-energized by spending time alone, or in reflection, or by stepping back). On some level, I think I had always known this to be true, but since we had this conversation I have come back to think on it many times. Six years later, I’ve recommended this book to so many people, I’ve lost count. I’ve reread it myself three times, and I still can’t get over how much of a difference it’s made to me.
I recently pulled the book out again after talking to one of my best friends about a new relationship in her life. I’m one of those introverts who’s drawn to the energy and charisma of extroverts, and this friend is a shining example of that. She is a dynamic, energetic, brilliant woman who can easily function on five hours a sleep a night. She isn’t phased by the idea of having twelve weekends in a row booked by travel, weddings, and lunch dates; in fact, when Hurricane Sandy hit New York and she was forced to stay home for a few days, she longed to be back at the office, jumping in on meetings and taking clients out for drinks.
I’ll be honest – just thinking about her life makes me tired – yet we’ve been best friends for over twenty years. Although she lives three thousand miles away, we talk several times a week, and recently, our conversations have come around to the idea of stress on the relationships between extroverts and introverts.
Without knowing it, couples enter into relationships wearing their own temperament spectacles. Our lenses are ground from our genes, physiology, upbringing, emotional history, social class, education, and friends. Each lens has a precise prescription, so each view is true and accurate for that particular person. But only for that person. What is very important for a healthy relationship is to realize that you are looking at life through your spectacles. If we think that our view is the right view, then we have struggles in our relationships. (loc 1692)
This is one of those ideas that seems obvious on paper, but in reality, people constantly struggle to communicate a unique view of the world to others and get incredibly frustrated when they’re misunderstood. Although that particular passage comes from a chapter on romantic relationships, for me, the idea is a guide for all of my relationships.
For example, I come from a rather unusual situation – I grew up in a family of introverts. Maybe it should have been obvious to the four us before I read this book, but it wasn’t. I had always thought introverted equaled shy and quiet, and that didn’t really fit. When I realized what introversion truly was, my entire life made so much more sense! My family’s temperaments are especially tied to the odd way we approach activities like vacations or parties or visiting friends. On the one hand, we want to do it all because we’re curious, friendly people; on the other, we often are irritable about those same things because we subconsciously anticipate the enormous energy drain we’ll have from participating.
In one section of the book where Laney discusses working with introverted children, she mentions that being in a car can be stressful, and to counteract the overwhelming feeling of being physically close to others, a child could use headphones, a book, or a physical barrier (like pillows) to offer some level of protection from the stimulation. Growing up, my brother and I each had a Walkman to listen to whenever we got in the car. My father called it “plugging in,” but in actuality, I think we were unplugging. I even remember that my favorite vehicle as a child was our Colt Vista Wagon, which had two rows of back seats; my brother would sit in the first row and I would sit on the opposite side in the far back – this gave both of us physical and mental space that I realize now was crucial.
Introverted children show their need for physical contact in many ways. Like all children, they can enjoy being held or hugged. At other times, when they feel overstimulated, they may require distance. “He’s touching my leg,” they might whine in the car if they are tired. In a group, they often like to be at the back, front, or edge of the pack, rather than in the center….Introverts feel drained by having their physical space intruded upon. It takes energy for them to be around people even if they are not interacting with them. This is very hard for extroverts to grasp since space is not an issue for them. Cozying up doesn’t require energy. (loc 1997)
Even as an adult, I require a lot of personal space. I prefer to stand on subways and to put as many seats as possible between me and other moviegoers in a theatre. It’s not that I can’t be close to other people; I just prefer to have a little separation. Friends often tease me about how I don’t like to give hugs ( I really don’t) or squish in with them on the couch, and it used to bother me. Now, I just shrug and agree. It’s part of my deal, and I don’t have to be ashamed of it.
I fully believe that the world would grind to a halt without its extroverts. (Fortunately, about seventy-five percent of the population identify as extroverts, so there’s little fear of a shortage.) Without my best friend, I’m pretty sure my wedding never could have happened – not to mention school dances I wouldn’t have attended, people I never would have met, and midnight adventures that would have gone un…ventured! After basically imprinting this book on my soul, I’m comfortable enough to know what it takes to be the happiest, healthiest introvert I can be. It’s made me love and appreciate extroverts like her so much more (not to mention allowing me to help beloved introverts get some much-needed peace and quiet!). It’s rare to find a book that can so completely redefine a person, but for me, The Introvert Advantage is absolutely it.
For more about Marti Olsen Laney, go here.